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Zero Footprint Cover

Zero Footprint

The True Story of a Private Military Contractor’s Covert Assignments in Syria, Libya, and the World’s Most Dangerous Places

Simon Chase and Ralph Pezzullo

Mulholland Books, New York, 2016, 320 pages

Book Review published on: January 3, 2017

Zero Footprint examines the evolution of the secretive private security business into a temporary, scalable, deniable private military force, as told by an insider. The name of the book alludes to the level of support and “signature” these operatives are required to maintain while conducting their assignments. The value of the book is its description of the lives that private military contractors (PMCs) lead, the motives for using them, and the effectiveness and value of their service. A real page-turner, the writing is precise, the detail vivid, and the consequences profound.

Zero Footprint is an autobiographical account of a former special boat service member turned PMC, published under the pen name of Simon Chase. It is his tale that is told, with the assistance of coauthor Ralph Pezzullo, an accomplished screenwriter and journalist. The book recounts Chase’s training with the elite special boat services and his subsequent entry into the world of private security in 1999, as well as the massive expansion of the military contractor enterprise through the turn of the century.

Unlike many books about the “war on terror,” the characters described are often seen less as heroes, and more as mercenaries. In the opening chapters, one discovers the misspent youth of the author, and the series of decisions and circumstances that eventually led him to the U.S. ambassadorial compound in Benghazi. In the telling, the reader begins to understand the sense of purpose and duty that drives many of these men. Brought together on dangerous missions without overt government support, and no recognition, PMCs can only rely on their teammates to watch their backs. To illuminate this, a chapter describes how two principals vying for control of the country wanted their security detachments to fight each other. However, since the community of operators was so tightly knit, the plan became known and the contractors refused to fight. The author relates a tale of what can happen to special operators that end their service to their country early due to unforeseen circumstances and yet wish to continue the high-risk vocation in which they excel.

The book is much more than a first-person account of dangerous missions taking place in far-flung locations; it provides insight of the inner workings and decision-making processes that governments use when employing private military contractors. The work they do at the behest of wealthy people, multinational corporations, and governments requires confidentiality. If publicly revealed, the details of these missions would embarrass or compromise the actions of the principals. As related in the book, an employer who is often an arm of the U.S. government requires a covert asset that cannot be traced back to the employer for a time-sensitive or short-term mission. It becomes clear when reading the book why private military contractors fill that role. Having the same skill sets as our elite operators, they become the go-to-guys when governments who have shrunk their military budgets need available forces. When the threat abates, PMCs can be “let go” with no further financial commitment or political ties, unlike government-run military forces.

The effectiveness of these shadow organizations can be hard to measure. However, the deeds and activities that PMCs conducted in the heady days after 9/11 cannot be in doubt. From meager beginnings as personnel security detachments, PMCs augmented the conventional forces providing security in war zones. Through PMC actions, U.S. and coalition soldiers are free to pursue the enemy instead of being tied up guarding diplomats, international aid operations, or critical infrastructure. PMCs conduct a wide range of missions from personal security detachments to covert reconnaissance, snatch and grabs, and the dark side of the business such as forced relocation of indigenous peoples, all of which are described in an entertaining way. The wide variety of tasks they are called to perform, and the emotional context that peppers the narrative, will leave you intrigued.

Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas